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The Plumbat affair; The story of how Israel got its nukes 



By Eric McLeod 

Special to Shunpiking Online 

1. The case of the "missing uranium." 

In November 1968 the cargo ship Scheersberg A set sail from Antwerp, Belgium, bound for 
Genoa, Italy. She was hauling uranium which Asmara Chemie, a West German chemical 
company, had consigned to SAICA, an Italian paint company, for commercial processing. 

She never arrived. 

Two weeks after she was due at Genoa she put in instead at the eastern Turkish port of 
Iskenderum, her hull empty. The captain and crew abandoned her and disappeared. 

The voyage of the Sheersberg A greatly preoccupied Euratom (Europe's nuclear security 
agency) and the intelligence services of European Commission member states and their 
NATO allies, including the CIA. All launched their own investigations to find out who could 
have absconded with the Scheersberg A's uranium cargo. 

All of them drew a blank. 

2. A Spy is Captured. 

Then in 1973, a Mossad (Israeli spy "Institute") assassin named Dan Aerbel was captured by 
Norwegian police. Aerbel's hit team was on a mission for Mossad chief Zwi Zamir— 
authorized by Israeli PM Golda Meir's government— to hunt down and kill Black September 
members in revenge for the deaths of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Aerbel's death 
squad had confused Salameh, their intended target, with Ahmed Bouchiki, a local waiter with 
no connection to Black September. Bouchiki was shot to death on the street by Mossad 
assassins after he stepped off a bus in Lillehammer— in front of multiple witnesses who 
reported descriptions of the shooters and their getaway car, including the license plate 
number, to Lillehammer police. 

Aerbel was arrested while attempting to flee Lillehammer and was interrogated for days by 
Inspector Ravlo of the "E-Gruppa," (Norway's equivalent of the FBI or RCMP), who passed 
Aerbel's confessions along to the Politiets Overvaaknightstjeneste, the Norwegian spy agency. 
The case of mistaken identity, Aerbel's capture and his subsequent confessions were a disaster 
for Zwi Zmir and Mossad. 

Aerbel, facing murder conspiracy charges, admitted to being a spy only following orders, and 
gave his interrogators all the information he had about Mossad's operations dating back 
several years in Africa (including Libya), Europe, and revealed the name of the ship that 
carried uranium to Israel: the Scheersberg A. 

3. Not allowed to have The Bomb. 



Nervous of losing their 1967 military-conquests in another war, Prime Minister Golda Meir 
her government (including General Dayan, then paratroop commander Ariel Sharon, and later 
Prime-Minister and former terrorist leader Menachem Begin) were determined to obtain 
nuclear weapons for defense of "Greater" (Eretz) Israel. Europe had 200 tonnes of uranium 
oxide ("yellowcake") sitting in a silo in Belgium which Israeli nuclear scientists were ready to 
convert into bombs at their clandestine reactor near Dimona. Trouble was, Israel was not 
allowed to have uranium. 

Standing in the regime's way to obtaining uranium was EURATOM, the European Economic 
Community's new regulatory agency tasked with monitoring the fledgling European nuclear 
industry. Part of Euratom's mandate is preserving the security of Europe's nuclear stocks and 
enforcing anti-nuclear arms proliferation treaties banning E.E.C. member states from 
exporting nuclear materiel to governments not allowed developing nuclear capacity— and of 
course Israel did not qualify. 

Prohibited by Euratom from purchasing the uranium legally, Meir turned to Mossad for help 
in secreting the uranium out of Europe. Operation Plumbat was born. (Plumba is Latin for 
lead, synonymous for "uranium.") 



4. "Operation Plumbat." 

The German chemical company Asmara Chemie was 

approached to play the major role in the operation. The 

connection between Asmara Chemie and Mossad dates back 

to when Dan Aerbel spent much of 1964 recruiting contacts 

for Israel around the U.S. military bases near Wiesbaden, 

West Germany, where Asmara did business. Shulzen, the 

owner, was invited to Israel and as a result began providing 

chemicals to Israel. With Israel facing sanctions after the The contru| R)0m ms)(Je Isn!eFs 

1967 war, A.C. supplied decontamination kits to the IDF, and rji mona nuc l e ar facility 

Shulzen even attempted to obtain advanced infra-red cameras 

for his Israeli friends. 




In 1968 Asmara Chemie applied to Euratom for approval of what appeared on the surface to 
be a routine proposal. Asmara wanted to buy uranium from the Belgian mineral company 
SGM and ship it on the Scheersberg A to Italy for harmless processing by the paint company 
SAICA, owned by one of Shulzen's cronies. SGM did not care much what happened to the 
uranium once satisfied that Asmara could pay for it. Euratom, disorganized, divided, 
squabbling with itself, and in the process of moving all their offices and files from one city to 
another, approved the Asmara- SAICA deal without much investigation. Euratom did think it a 
little unusual to move the uranium by ship instead of rail, but nothing came of it. 

The Sheersberg A met secretly with an Israeli freighter somewhere in the Eastern 
Mediterranean, and the uranium was transferred at sea. The freighter then sailed the remaining 
distance to Israel where the uranium was unloaded and sent to Dimona for processing into 
weapons. 

5. The truth is revealed. 



The cover-up of Israel's nuclear secret remained largely intact until 1976, when the legal 



counsel to the U.S. Senate's Government Operations Committee, a man named Leventhal, 
became fascinated by CIA estimates stating Isreal had churned-out about three low-grade 
nukes by 1973. Leventhal, a passionate anti-nuclear proliferation activist, became determined 
to solve the mystery of how Israel had acquired the fissionable material to make the Bomb. 

A key chance meeting occurred between Leventhal and the Euratom official who had 
approved the contract between SGM, the Belgian uranium supplier, and Asmara, the Israeli 
front company. Leventhal went public with this information at the antinuclear conference in 
Salzburg, Austria in late April 1977, and also leaked the story to the LA Times: in 1968, 200 
tons of European uranium went missing and had been unloaded in Israel. 

Besieged by questions from journalists, European officials in Brussells would admit only that 
200 tons of uranium had been "lost" on the high seas, and the name of the uranium's buyer: 
Asmara Chemie. 



Then Enricio Jacchia, former Euratom safeguard's director, held a press conference where he 
outlined the 



Israel's Nuclear Stockpile 

■ Estimate - Lower Range — -— Upper Range 



500 



book he 
planned to 
write and gave 
away the 
operational 
codeword: 
Plumbat. 

Time 

Magazine and 
Der Spiegel 
reported that 
German 
Chancellor 
Kiesinger had 
assured Israelis 
"they would be 
allowed to 
disguise their 

purchase of Source: Jewish Virtual Library 
uranium as a 

private 

transaction in West Germany." 

In 1978 The Plumbat Affair was published in the United States. 




~7 1 7 I I I I I I I T I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I ' 

1964 1972 1980 1988 1996 

1968 1976 1984 1992 2000 



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